Pride means something different for everyone in the LGBTQ community. For Jazz Jennings — the transgender star of the TLC reality show, I Am Jazz — “Pride” means having a strong sense of self-love.
“Pride to me is about loving yourself unconditionally and that means not putting any limitations on who you are and what you can become,” Jennings says. “I think being prideful is really valuing and understanding yourself and loving yourself for who you are, despite what other people think.”
Of course, it’s not always easy for transgender people — some of the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ community, whose rights are under siege during the Trump administration — to find this sense of acceptance. Finding a role model, especially during hard times or in anti-LGBTQ places, can be an essential part of this process.
For Jennings, Laverne Cox — the transgender activist and star of Orange Is the New Black — has been a guiding light in her own career as a trans person in the public eye. “She’s such a strong representation of what it means to be a trans woman. And every time I see her speak, I’m like ‘Wow, I wish I could be an ounce of what Laverne is.’ I feel like I try to be my best self and I think she’s so inspiring and I try to do what she does,” Jennings says.
Jennings, now 18, has spent most of her young life advocating for transgender people and trying to make others think differently about her community. Her 2007 interview with Barbara Walters on 20/20 about the challenges of growing up trans gave her a national platform. She later used it to help persuade the United States Soccer Federation to change its rules and allow trans students, like herself, to play on the teams that correspond with their gender identity.
Additionally, her hit TLC series, which shows Jennings and her family members dealing with other challenges and triumphs — including her gender transition — has aired since 2015. Jennings acknowledged that although she may still be a teenager, she is already a role model for young people facing a similar path.
“It’s really cool to know that just by being myself, I can inspire other people to be their best selves as well and that’s what it’s really all about. By being authentic, I can help other people be authentic too,” Jennings says. And she could not be prouder of the impact sharing her story has had on others.
“Being in the public eye has completely transformed my life,” Jennings says. “I wouldn’t be sitting in this chair today if we hadn’t taken the steps we had taken as a family. Honestly, even though it’s hard at times being so open and honest about such personal aspects of your individual journey, knowing that it could help save lives is just so empowering. Because when you hear messages from people saying they were contemplating suicide until they saw our family story, it just makes you really look at the value of your work.”
The teen activist points to her own strength and resilience as the aspect of herself that she is most proud of. Jennings encouraged others to have confidence in themselves, as well.
“I think that I can get through anything and, for so long, I was afraid of my confidence,” Jennings says. “I was afraid people were going to say I was full of myself, I was cocky, arrogant, this and that. And I realize that it’s better to be those things than to not love and value yourself.”
To this end, Jennings acknowledged how important it is for a young person, especially someone who is LBGTQ, to find a support network. She pointed to her own family as “the greatest support system I could have,” referencing specifically how her parents helped her fight the trans soccer ban because they “weren’t going to let this injustice occur.”
“My family fights for me in so many ways,” Jennings says. “Any time someone says something mean about me, they will stick up for me right away. Just in my life, if I’m facing a challenge or struggle, I know I could go to them and talk to them about anything and they’ll support me and accept me. I’m just really grateful to have them, because not everyone is as lucky as I am.”
For those young people who are not able to embrace their authentic selves this Pride season — due to the transphobic political climate, or otherwise — Jennings has a message. “I know that right now, things seem scary for our community,” she said. “However, I have so much hope. I know that things will get better in the future. And while things seem kind of gloomy at the present moment, I just know in my heart that the world is getting better and better and that change is being created. So stay hopeful, stay strong, and just continue being yourself, because one day, everyone will allow you to be your true self.”
But don’t just wait for the times to change, stressed Jennings. The activist encouraged anyone who is able to seize the platforms available to them, including social media, to help make change happen.
“To any LGBTQ person out there who wants to make a difference, you can make that difference,” Jennings says. “I feel like with social media, everyone can be an advocate for themselves and their community. I think it’s so great we have that platform to be able to express ourselves. Even if you’re not reaching thousands, millions of people, as long as you can change one life, then you’ve played your part.”